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NOC Responds to the Washington Post article on organic milk

Posted: May 11, 2017

Liz Bawden is a New York organic dairy farmer, President of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (a NOC member), and NOFA-NY Board Member (a NOC member). And she wants organic consumers to know that there is value and integrity in the organic product her farm provides. Read her response here.

NOC Calls on NOP to Strengthen Organic Enforcement and ‘Peer Review’ Oversight Process

By Abby Youngblood, NOC Executive Director

The recent Washington Post article, Why your ‘organic’ milk may not be organic, reveals failings on multiple fronts in what is by and large a rigorous system of certification and accreditation of organic products by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Given these failings, the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) must strengthen its systems for monitoring and enforcing the organic standards. NOC will continue to hold the NOP accountable in their responsibility as the accreditor of certifiers.

The first failing that is apparent from the Washington Post story is on the part of the company Aurora Organic Dairy, which is acting in violation of the organic standards. Organic standards require that certified organic dairies rely on pasture-based systems of production. The silver lining is that the vast majority of USDA certified organic farms are committed to both the spirit and letter of the rigorous organic standards. Furthermore, as the article reveals, these standards do in fact make a significant difference in the nutritional composition of organic milk. Among other measurable benefits of organic, milk from organic cows has elevated levels of two types of fat, CLA and Omega-3 fat, which are both associated with human health benefits.

The second failing described in this article is that of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, the certifying body that is responsible for performing inspections of Aurora Organic Dairy. The standards for organic dairy production are clear, thanks in no small part to the provisions that were written into the ‘Pasture Rule’, a regulatory clarification that was passed in 2010. Shamefully, the Colorado Department of Agriculture is not enforcing these standards to ensure that the pasture-based requirements that are so central to organic production are being followed. All certifiers are required to certify to the same standards. Any certifier that is not doing its job in this regard is at risk for losing its accreditation by the USDA as a certifier.

One aspect of the Washington Post article, however, is misleading. In describing the inspection and certification process, the article mischaracterizes the organic verification system as one in which farmers “hire their own inspectors.” That is not the case. While farmers do choose an organic certification agency, they cannot select which individuals perform the rigorous annual inspections that each certified organic operation must undergo. In addition, certification agencies must be free of conflicts of interests from the operations that they certify, in order for them to be accredited by the USDA.

A third failing indicated by the article is on the part of the USDA National Organic Program. The NOP is responsible for overseeing the accreditation of organic certifying agents.  The NOP should take necessary action to ensure that the certifiers are enforcing all standards, including the organic ‘Pasture Rule’. Furthermore, the NOP has the authority to take appropriate legal action to enforce the organic standards, and should conduct thorough investigations as a result of complaints or suspected violations.

These multiple failings are egregious and demand a response from the NOP, which holds the ultimate responsibility for enforcing the organic standards to ensure consumer trust and the integrity of organic products. The National Organic Coalition (NOC) is particularly concerned about the lack of appropriate monitoring and oversight by the NOP. NOC believes one essential solution in confronting problems at the NOP level is oversight of the NOP itself. This system of oversight is required by the Organic Law and Regulations and is known as ‘peer review’. 

This past year, the NOP took a step forward by convening an independent Peer Review Panel and by making both the results of that review, as well as the process by which the review would be conducted, available to the public. The 2016 Peer Review Panel was somewhat limited in scope – reviewers analyzed documentation from the files of five certifiers as well as the NOP documents used to direct accreditation. Though the results of the 2016 review indicate that “the NOP and its staff are in general compliance” with the necessary policies and procedures, it also revealed several deeper issues as described in further detail in NOC’s written comments to the National Organic Standards Board in April of 2017. And future ‘peer reviews’ must include an examination of the results from prior reviews, corrective actions, internal audits, and complaints - the 2016 review did not include these components. 

For many years, NOC has been calling on the NOP to implement a system of ongoing oversight of its accreditation procedures as required by the Organic Law and Regulations and in the spirit of continuous improvement. An annual, independent peer review such as the one conducted in 2016 is a step in the right direction, but it does not constitute continuous oversight of the NOP’s accreditation system. 

NOC believes the ‘peer review’ process is a mechanism to identify weaknesses within the system and to allow the NOP to continually strengthen its procedures. For example, the Washington Post article raises questions about whether or not the NOP is holding all certifying bodies to the same standards. How is the Colorado Department of Agriculture able to retain its accreditation despite its failure to certify to the organic standards? Do certain certifiers or operations obtain preferential treatment from the NOP? This is exactly the type of issue that a system of ongoing oversight of the NOP would address.

NOC calls on the NOP to swiftly respond to the violation of organic standards and problems related to the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s certification procedures as described in this article with a thorough investigation and enforcement actions as necessary to restore consumer trust in the label. NOC believes that the NOP must be given the necessary resources to enforce the organic standards in a rigorous manner – the success of the organic industry depends on it. But beyond this, the NOP must ensure that its oversight of certifiers and accreditation procedures ensure the integrity of the organic seal. Strengthening the peer review process is a critical missing link.

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